Priolite MBX 500 Review

It’s not often that I get the chance to talk about something not only new, but something completely different. Developments in the world of flash happen at a snails pace, mostly manufacturers bolting on small ‘add ons’ to existing heads. However at Focus this year, a new light was introduced with groundbreaking design features, the Priolite. The Priolite, its name the manufacturer says implies ‘mobile battery lighting’, has thrown us a new piece of technology and thus introduced a whole new way of working in the studio. Bold claims I hear you say? Well, after you've read this you can make your own minds up about that, but first lets go through the nuts and bolts.

Who's behind Priolite?

Any new product that comes to market has its own set of problems to overcome and prospective buyers are right to ask questions, like: "where does it come from?", "how long will it last?" and "is it really any good?" I’m pleased to say that the Priolite although new to our market does come with provenance and his name is Joachim Renschke. Not a name that everyone will know, but he’s been in the flash business a long time. He was a director of Hensel, one of the most respected German lighting brands and whilst there, had a lot to do with product development before setting up his own business to design and build the Priolite.

It’s reassuring to know where the Priolite has come from and the thinking behind it and so we already know the quality we can expect from it. The Priolite obviously shares some of the Hensel characteristics, however the key difference to discuss is the way the Priolite works. The range is made up of two heads at present. A 500j and 1000j model are both exclusively battery driven, they don’t even have a mains socket. This is a very new concept and a bold one at that, since electronic flash has always run off, you guessed it electricity.

How the Priolite works

All technology moves on a pace these days and so does battery technology, the key driver of the Priolite system. First, let me talk you through the way it looks and works. Outwardly the Priolite 500j looks like an old type Bowens Mononlight, circular in shape, long and quite big, quite chunky in fact, a real beast of a head. All the controls are on the rear panel on a grey moulded plastic casting that incorporates the handle and built in integral battery.

As you look at the rear section, the middle has a large upright rectangle, the pull out, internal battery pack, its beating heart. A series of very small buttons and LED panels surround the battery pack. Lets talk about those batteries first - a Li-on 58v 80 Wh drives the Priolite 1000j and a slightly smaller and lighter 15.8v 35 Wh battery is used in the Priolite 500j. The batteries are heavy - 0.9kg for the larger 1000j and 0.6kg for the 500j. These rechargeable batteries that have no memory effect, can be recharged back to full power within 3 hours. To see how much power is left, a small knob can be depressed and a series of vertical orange lights tells you the battery status.

I’ll talk about shots per charge later, but lets carry on with the controls. On the left of the rear panel is the Test button, buttons for Audio, FC, (ready) and Slave. Both models feature built in radio receivers. Above those controls are three more buttons for that radio system and its LED display. To the right of the battery is the step-less power knob, power LED display and three further modelling lamp buttons. The On/Off switch is under a sprung cover on the front of the battery pack. Pinching two plastic clips together, removes the battery pack that has its own handle. The controls seem fine although those buttons are very small and only have tiny guide lights when switched on.

Other nice details on the Priolites are that the accessory fitting is both Hensel and ‘S’ type fitting. That means it can take a variety of accessories from the Priolite range, the Bowens ‘S’ type range and budget priced WexPro range, something to suit everybody’s pocket. The built-in centre of gravity bar that runs the length of the underside of the body is also helpful when you use larger accessories. The moulded plastic swivel and stand adaptor are also well built for the size and weight of head. The body is metal except for the moulding of the rear panel and handle and the head has a good solid feel to it. There is also a built-in fan with a temperature sensor that cuts in if things get too hot. Outwardly, it may not look cutting edge in design, but you do feel that someone has thought a lot about the way it all works.

In fact the Priolites bristle with features, despite being deprived of electricity and the power is a good place to start. The way power is delivered is a really important feature to take into account when buying any flash and the more exact its calibration, the more control the photographer has. The Priolites deliver power in exact 10ths of a stop over 5 stops, on the 500j that’s a range from 500j down to 16j at the bottom end. The 1000j has a 6 stop range that also goes down to 16j, and that’s impressive. Both models also have a very efficient auto dump system built in which means that the user doesn’t have to flash the power off to get rid of any excess held in the capacitors.

Another key difference with the Priolite is that each model has its own modelling lamp. This is certainly not a feature that all battery systems can boast. The Priolites use a 100w Halogen on the 1000j model and 80w of LED’s on the 500j and both are incredibly bright. It’s a great feature and a must have for any type of studio work and although working without a mod lamp is possible it's never as easy. Having said that, I do have one small niggle here. The Priolite 1000 has full and proportional modelling, very nice, but the Priolite 500, despite having all the same buttons, only works on full power, why I wonder? It does seem odd that as both models go down to 16j of power, only one version has proportional modelling?

But the feature I liked most about the Priolite is the flash duration, another key part of any flash. To achieve high speeds is a real advantage for the photographer in terms of shooting at a consistent daylight rating and to freeze motion. The Priolite 500j boasts an astonishing flash duration of 4,500ths of a second at T=0.5, the standard measurement. I can’t test this speed as I don’t have the equipment to do it, so we must trust the figures quoted, but this is exceptionally fast, believe me! I asked the manufacturer to tell me the flash duration at the lowest power of 16j as it was not quoted in their brochure. They came back with a figure of 1,200ths of a second.  This figure tells me that that the flash duration is not constant and like other heads on the market reduces when the power is turned down, but 1,200 ths at its lowest output is still very impressive. The K rating of the small 6.5cm clear flash tube is 5500K daylight converted by the frosted dome that covers it. A clear dome is also available as an option.

Going back to that speed, to achieve 4,500th flash duration is a real feat that few other flash heads can match. Combine that with the step-less power I mentioned, delivered in 10ths of a stop and the Priolite has a lot to offer even to the most serious of commercial photographers. And don’t forget this very high end spec is delivered via battery, not mains.

Battery power

Lets talk about this battery-only power source for a moment. At first I was a little concerned about it, not having a mains lead that is. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. We live with a host of battery driven gadgets that we couldn’t do without these days, our phones, our laptops, our iPads and iPods, my cordless screwdriver and of course our cameras. Photographers have been working with rechargeable batteries and battery packs for years and so working with a cordless flash head seems an obvious step to take.

Battery power has advantages and disadvantages of course and I took some time to consider these points. On balance, I think there are more positives than there are negatives, especially knowing that studios can be dangerous places. Studios are full of leads trailing all over the floor just waiting to be tripped over. Even moving a light may mean unplugging and plugging the cable into a different wall socket and then there are all those good old health and safety issues to consider.

The only negative that came to mind was a weight issue and it is true that the Priolites are comparatively heavy compared to other heads of the same power. But I think ease of use wins the argument and being able to move a flash head anywhere you want, whether working inside or outside the studio is a huge plus point for the battery head.

As I said, photographers will probably feel the need to carry a spare battery for both piece of mind and practically too, although the figures for the Priolites output are not bad. The output figures for the 500j are quoted at 220 shots at full power, 440 shots at 250j and an amazing 6000 shots at the lowest power setting of 16j. In the booklet it doesn't say whether running the modelling lamp is included within these figures, but I presume they are. If so, the figures are very respectable and will offer the user plenty of shooting options.

The triggering of the Priolite is another well thought out feature, if a little over-engineered for the average snapper. A hotshoe fitting radio transmitter allows the photographer to select no less than 36 individual heads and be able to set each one! It’s a nice piece of kit, but again I found the buttons a bit small to operate it. Having said that, it’s dead easy to set up, allocating each head with its own unique code and be able to change its settings, power, mod lamp etc. The blurb says it has a 300m range but sadly as it was snowing so heavily on the day I had to play with it, (as it does in mid March!) I was so warm and cosy inside I decided not to test its range outside! Once again, I’m happy to quote from the brochure and it did work beautifully inside, even through walls without a misfire.

Conclusion

To sum the Priolites is an easy task, they are both very nice and I like them. I would like the Priolite 500 even more if it had proportional modelling. They are heavy for their size compared to other heads, 3.2kg for the 500 and 4.5kg for the 1000, including the internal battery.

At the time of publishing this, the costs of the heads are £1079 for the Priolite MBX500 and £1249 for the Priolite MBX1000.

Spare battery packs cost £184 for the 500 and £238 for the 1000.

To make a fair comparison you must compare each price with a similar powered model, its own battery pack plus extension leads. When you do this exercise you’ll find (as I did) that the Priolites are not expensive and that’s before you consider the incredible spec they offer. That flash duration and the modelling lamps are certainly features that I would pay extra for.

I appreciate that the Priolites are not for everyone, but the point is they are here right now for sale in the UK. I’m not certain if Her Renschke has any patents pending on the overall designs, but take it from me this will not be the only battery flash head that we’ll see over the next few years. In my estimation this will be the start of a new generation of flash. I’m sure that it will get smaller and cheaper as the technology gets better and I for one can’t wait to see how it develops.

So the question is this, would I buy a Priolite now? Yes, I would, will you?

If you have questions about the Priolite or other flash related topics, please drop me an email.